I’ve always felt that the greatest strength of gaming is how easily it can function as a framework for social interaction, especially between total strangers. As so many of us geeks are introverts by nature, starting a conversation with someone new can be more than a little intimidating: you want to say the right thing, but how do you know what that is when you’ve never met them before? The party-game phenomenon Cards Against Humanity built its name on the concept of throwing this all-too-common issue out the window and deliberately saying the wrong thing—because the whole point of the game is to be comically offensive, it’s the perfect icebreaker. When your self-expression occurs within the context of a game, it frees you from having to deal with any real-life repercussions. When viewed from this safety of separation, the matter of accidentally sparking an interstellar war through some unfortunate slip of the tongue becomes easier to deal with.
And an upcoming game event will provide the opportunity for exactly that: Minnesota Megagames is hosting a session of the “megagame” Watch the Skies!, in which aliens have appeared in Earth’s orbit and the many nations of our humble planet must decide how to react. If you’ve never played a megagame before, it’s basically a hybrid role-playing game and board game in which 50 or more players partake in a single epic-scale confrontation. The genre has its roots in the military; it has historically been used as a teaching tool, and in the 1980s the concept bled into the wargaming subculture. UK gamer Jim Wallman has made a living out of developing megagame scenarios, and in Watch the Skies! he invites players to answer a classic question: what would happen if humanity suddenly became aware of extraterrestrial forces encroaching on our world? Wallman’s first game of Watch the Skies! took place in London in May of 2014, and the event generated a great deal of buzz within the gaming community due in part to its coverage by the gaming newsgroup Shut Up and Sit Down. Now the event comes to Minnesota, and local gamers can enjoy the thrill of alien espionage.
What makes megagaming unique is that its scope encompasses all facets of a global crisis, and everyone who participates is given a distinct role in shaping the outcome. You might be the head of the United States Department of Defense, armed with the knowledge of what is happening each turn on the classified World Map. You might be a Russian scientist who has captured a live alien specimen. Or you might be a member of the alien faction whose attempt to rescue one of your people from Russia has been misconstrued as an act of aggression! Even for players who have participated in Watch the Skies! previously, the experience is always fresh, changing wildly depending on the role the player is assigned—no matter what a veteran of the game may think he or she knows about the aliens’ secret intentions, they might be completely different this time around. Do they come in peace, wishing to share their superior technology to aid humanity’s advancement? Do they wish to annihilate us all and claim the planet Earth for themselves? At this point, one can only speculate.
Games of this size require a large control team to keep things running smoothly. These volunteers serve to relay information between the various theaters of gameplay and to adjudicate actions the players wish to perform. It’s up to the creativity of the players to decide what they wish to do to advance their nation’s goals (or those of the alien species). For example, your country’s secret-agent player can attempt to do any of the things you might expect—spy on rival nations, sabotage a UFO, and so forth—but like in most role-playing games, whenever a player wishes to attempt something with a potential for failure, dice rolls are required to determine its success or failure.
If you’d like to meet like-minded people and perhaps develop interpersonal skills within the context of a sci-fi game of intrigue and conspiracy, Watch the Skies! takes place on April 8, 2017, from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union. Tickets are available through Eventbrite, and the organizers expect them to sell out, so be sure to buy soon! For more information, follow Minnesota Megagames on Facebook.